Onalaska Mayor Kim Smith on Redevelopment, Changes to City and Staff
About BizCast Greater La Crosse
We bring you news from the business community. From startups to experienced problem solvers, you’ll get in-depth insight on the challenges and opportunities of doing business in Greater La Crosse. Our show is a collaboration between WIZMNews.com and BizNews Greater La Crosse ( GreaterLaCrosse.media ).
Full Transcript [ generated by AI]
[00:00:01] Kim Smith: The things that people normally pay attention to and are important to them, and they advocate for, are the things that we just really have only a small amount to work with once we take care of our infrastructure.
[00:00:14] Vicki Markussen: Welcome to Biz Cast Greater La Crosse, a weekly podcast from Biz News. We bring you news out of the business community. I am your host and founder, Vicki Markussen and joining me today is Kim Smith. You are the mayor of Onalaska how long have you been mayor
[00:00:28] Kim Smith: now? I was appointed the mayor December of 2019, and then I was elected in April.
[00:00:33] Kim Smith: Of 2020. So, just heading to the end of the last leg of my journey here as mayor of the city of Onalaska. Yeah,
[00:00:41] Vicki Markussen: that’s like a whole other story I think we could have around what that experience was like. But as I was telling you, Dan Stevens and I sit on the tourism board together, and he said, Hey, we are so proud to have our last big box store filled.
[00:00:55] Vicki Markussen: And so that’s what caused me to reach out and say, first of all, kudos because any community would be shouting that. From the rooftops. There has been a developer that has filled Shopko
[00:01:06] Kim Smith: yep. You can see if you drive by there, you’ll see the construction going on.
[00:01:10] Kim Smith: Now it’s starting to, Really shape up. But there’ll be five different retail stores in there and we’re anticipating the opening in late October, beginning of November.
[00:01:20] Vicki Markussen: TJ Maxx, which has Home Goods and Sierra, correct? I think so, yeah. And five Below.
[00:01:26] Vicki Markussen: And Ulta is what is going in there. And some of that is moving from other areas, which will then actually open up. Other space that needs to get filled, but it’ll be new, fresh space, which will be exciting. Let’s talk about your
[00:01:39] Kim Smith: rebranding. Yes. One of the other exciting things you’ll see around Onalaska and with our communications is that we just went through a rebranding process, both for the city and the Omni Center.
[00:01:52] Kim Smith: The city, we did not intend to have a logo, but through the process of rebranding, which none of us were very familiar with, we found out that a lot of people refer to the city of Onalaska as “Ona”. And in talking to what we love about Onalaska, we feel it’s a vibrant community with a lot of things going on that live on a live vibrantly was a great tagline that really encapsulated how we feel about Onalaska.
[00:02:19] Kim Smith: And with that, kind of visualizing the vibrant part we chose instead of just like one color, I think a lot of people think Onalaska is purple. But that is the high school color, but that is not the city color. We identified like several different color palettes that we’re gonna be using, for our social media, for our letterhead, on our business cards and all of those other things.
[00:02:41] Kim Smith: So I think that’s a great refresh for our community. And we also at the same time did a rebranding for the Omni Center. We’re so fortunate to partner with the county for this project. They helped us pay for it, and so the Omni Center does have a new logo. Now. You may have seen it. It’s blue in the front of, it looks like the front of the Omni center.
[00:03:03] Kim Smith: They’re in the process of updating their signage, getting some banner signs, and they’ll be completing some painting and other refreshing within the building as the year winds down here. So
[00:03:14] Vicki Markussen: we were chatting before this about the Omni Center, and I said, it just seems like it is.
[00:03:20] Vicki Markussen: Just filling constantly. There’s always things to attend at the Omni Center. Can you talk about how well that building is performing because it is a city owned building, correct? Yes,
[00:03:31] Kim Smith: it is. It’s a city-owned building and, really for the first time in its history starting last year, we are actually in the black at the Omni Center . It is supported partially with our tourism dollars and some city dollars, but you know, We are doing well up there, and I really attribute that to our park and rec team that we have in place as well as our omni center manager.
[00:03:55] Kim Smith: They’re doing a great job working in partnership with Explore La Crosse to keep that facility full and have a variety of activities expanding what they’re offering. I just wrote down a couple notes. The, some of the traditional things that people, I think commonly attend the market and the park is coming up on August 26th.
[00:04:16] Kim Smith: There’s gonna still be the craft fair on October 14th and 15th. We currently do have ice in Rink two, and I think maybe that’s something people misunderstand. They think it’s just a hockey center and it actually is a hockey center. It’s one of the largest hockey centers in the region.
[00:04:34] Kim Smith: But we’ll be putting the ice in rink one later in October. Yeah, it’s
[00:04:39] Vicki Markussen: interesting because back from my builder’s Association days, you had expanded the, it, this is how old I am, but essentially, you created that second arena, and it was always the pressure of, oh, the hockey players wanna get in there.
[00:04:53] Vicki Markussen: So I realized what a coveted resource that is for the hockey players. , kudos to the Omni Center for all that they have going on. You have a couple other community events, like you were talking about some fundraisers
[00:05:05] Kim Smith: coming up. Sure. Let me, before we move on to that. Yeah. Let me just add though that I think people need to realize that having a sheet of ice down, especially year round, but really anytime, it is very expensive, it costs a lot in electricity.
[00:05:20] Kim Smith: So we are monitoring what happens at the Omni Center and evaluating. The cost of to rent ice per hour is driven by the market. It’s not necessarily driven by our cost. And so we are constantly evaluating what is the most effective use of our community space and what best benefits everyone.
[00:05:39] Kim Smith: And even though it has traditionally been a major ICE center does not mean it will always be one in the future, just depending upon community and how it changes. That is an
[00:05:49] Vicki Markussen: important note. Yeah. What I had asked you was the canine fundraiser. You have some
[00:05:54] Kim Smith: fundraisers? Yeah, there’s multiple fundraisers going on right now, and our community is just so generous and supportive and really we rely on everyone working together.
[00:06:03] Kim Smith: As I mentioned with this rebranding for the Omni Center, we partnered with the county on that with the canine program. That’s always been funded by community. Dollars it is a partnership. The city pays for the officer, but the extra costs incurred are even for our current canine, are already born by generous contributions.
[00:06:25] Kim Smith: So the current canine fundraiser is to add a second canine. We’re hoping to mirror is our current one. He’s about mid. Mid career. And so we’re hoping that by adding this second canine, now we can have a nice transition and move to having two canines in service. They provide a service to our community that’s invaluable.
[00:06:47] Kim Smith: They’re able to find and detect various drugs, which everyone they’re trained for. They can do searches based on scent and they can, be a supportive person if Someone flees and needs to be apprehended. They can assist with that in defending our officers. So we really value our canine program and are looking forward to expanding that.
[00:07:11] Kim Smith: The goal for that was $110,000, and we are so close to that goal. It is almost realized. We had the national night out on Tuesday, and they had a booth set up, and we’re accepting contributions there as well. We really anticipate reaching that goal within the very near future. Fantastic.
[00:07:31] Vicki Markussen: And then you had said that there was the community center. The community center’s gonna get
[00:07:37] Kim Smith: a facelift. Yes. Our community center that’s located on Quincy Street near the middle school is we started, we wanted to leave a legacy with some of our Funding that we received from post covid funding.
[00:07:54] Kim Smith: And so the council had identified the community center as a place in need in our community and somewhere where we could leave a legacy for the future. And that project is in the design phase now to completely rebuild the community center local. Hi local architect has been hired, and we have a vision for that.
[00:08:16] Kim Smith: Really expanding that place right now. The seniors take their lunches there and there is a nominal kitchen. The bathrooms are not handicap accessible. The entrance coming up to the building is not fully compliant. So there’s many things with that building that need to be improved, and we are really looking forward to offering that to our community.
[00:08:40] Kim Smith: Construction. We’ll probably be in 2024 to 2025, so it’s a pretty. Large project that we’re taking on. Any
[00:08:49] Vicki Markussen: other community projects that are
[00:08:51] Kim Smith: happening? Yeah, definitely. The Lions Club has a fundraiser going on to build every child’s dream playground. This is gonna be located at the community park, so just on the other side of the block from the community center behind the shelter there.
[00:09:06] Kim Smith: This is gonna be all-inclusive playground. That we don’t have anything like that in Onalaska now. So we’re really happy to partner with the Lions on this to bring their vision to reality in one of our community parks.
[00:09:22] Vicki Markussen: And then you had mentioned, the cemetery
[00:09:24] Kim Smith: expansion.
[00:09:26] Kim Smith: Yeah. That’s kind of a longer project that we’ve been working on for a long time. We wanna add a columbarium to the cemetery. And there’s some other design work going. If you’re familiar with the area, you’ll know Hickory Street cuts through the one side of the cemetery and there’s like a wooded lot across from that.
[00:09:46] Kim Smith: That is future cemetery land where this development is gonna be going. So as part of that Hickory Street will be abandoned, vacated between 12th and 13th so that that portion can fully become united with the rest of the cemetery. Now this is dependent on, we’ve started our budget process, but depending upon budgetary dollars, we’re anticipating the vacation of Hickory Street to be either in 2024 or it might get pushed to 2025, depending upon all of the other things up in the air with the budget.
[00:10:19] Vicki Markussen: On that note, is there anything in the budget that people might be interested in pending its approval? Of course.
[00:10:27] Kim Smith: I mean there’s always a lot of things in the budget. We have two budgets, actually, the operating budget and the capital improvement budget. Talk about the operating budget side for a little bit First.
[00:10:37] Kim Smith: A lot of people might have heard in the news about the shared revenue bill that was recently making its way through the house and Senate. I was fortunate to be able to go down to Madison for the hearings. Mitch Reynolds was there as well, and, and register in support of that bill that did eventually pass.
[00:10:54] Kim Smith: That shared revenue bill, will really help us with our operating expense. And we appreciate that. But the way municipalities budget, we really can’t increase taxes. We have a levy limit that we’re not allowed to go over. So that’s part of the reason the shared revenue is so important.
[00:11:12] Kim Smith: It’s like extra money that we get for this from the state. In addition to the tax dollars that we get from the property taxes. But you know, looking forward, it will help us this year. It may help us next year, but it is not a long-term solution to a problem that exists. So I’m not sure if more work can be done on the side of the state.
[00:11:34] Kim Smith: Otherwise our only recourse, looking forward as a municipality, as we look at these, 7% inflation rates, the challenges of retaining good people, keeping compensation competitive. We really only have two other choices, and one is to add fees, which we’re legally limited, what fees we can add.
[00:11:54] Kim Smith: And then the other option is to do a referendum from the voters requesting permission to go over the levy limit. So we’re really all these things, you know, we’re talking several years out, but you know, you have to plan, as with all budgets, you have to be looking into the future and trying to make wise decisions for our community because we know Onalaska has a lot of great things going for it.
[00:12:15] Kim Smith: We really pride ourselves in our existing infrastructure. We invest a lot of money into that. We wanna keep it up. And then on the capital improvement side, We generally budget about $3.5 million in projects each year. And the majority of that is tied up with keeping our infrastructure in place, keeping our emergency services in place.
[00:12:41] Kim Smith: So it leaves us very little discretionary spending to do things like this community center rebuild and say even playground equipment and. Things the things that people normally pay attention to and are important to them, and they advocate for, are the things that we just really have only a small amount to work with once we take care of our infrastructure.
[00:13:05] Vicki Markussen: And so let’s stay on that thought process, which is, Onalaska landlocked, there isn’t a lot of land available and there’s an important conversation coming up in terms of how that land and transportation, and it’s usually called the comprehensive plan. So what does that look like?
[00:13:25] Kim Smith: Yes, this is our year to look at our long range comprehensive plan. We have a committee of people working on this and we’ve hired a consultant. So we are trying to take planning to take public input through different stakeholder meetings, and then we’ll have an open house probably in September where people can give input on all the various things about Onalaska that we think are important.
[00:13:53] Kim Smith: This really sets the stage for how we move forward and make decisions about. You know about things in the future, we refer back to it and say when we did the comprehensive plan, this is what was important to us. So we try to hold on to those things going forward, so we don’t, sometimes I think people get caught up in, I.
[00:14:11] Kim Smith: Try, just use the budget for example. Trying to meet the budget, keeping the budget low. What do we have to make different priorities. What are we gonna prioritize? And we wanna make sure that we don’t lose the sense of what makes Onalaska the vibrant community that we’ve identified it to be.
[00:14:27] Kim Smith: And we have to really put those ideas onto paper so that we don’t lose them. If you’re more interested in that, we do have a website. Contributed to it. It’s called live on a 20 forty.com. That’s L I V E O N a 20 forty.com. There we will be, there’s some different surveys where you can take a poll, give your input, and as we go through the process, those questions and the information that’s on there will change, and as we are bringing forward the components of the plan, they will be there also for public review.
[00:15:02] Kim Smith: So we’re hoping to make best use of our computerized world and social media and try to get a lot of input from the community.
[00:15:11] Vicki Markussen: This comprehensive plan, especially with being a landlocked city, is always an interesting conversation. And again, as we were leading into this interview, I said, you know, there’s this great potential because what some of us know is the former Midwest Securities, I think.
[00:15:28] Vicki Markussen: Was in there at one point, a large piece of property that is, how do we describe it? Kind of by Mayo Clinic, over by Home Depot, Walmart there, and then they’ve now split up the side lots that were part of that. So there’s a pretty big, well there’s a pretty big building for sale, but now there’s two I think it’s on each side, two side lots.
[00:15:49] Vicki Markussen: And it got us talking about the public’s understanding of what control City has and doesn’t have over land. How do you, how would you explain it to the public?
[00:16:02] Kim Smith: The city doesn’t approve business plans. We don’t do any business building of ourselves. We do have the codes in place that guide what can happen in different areas, how it’s zoned what process has to happen in order to try to request the zoning to get changed if needed.
[00:16:20] Kim Smith: But oftentimes people have a vision for something that would be great in a location, and they let me know what it is. And unfortunately, I’m not too much help because I am not able to fund that. Really, you need to find a developer or someone like that to invest in those sorts of projects. But I think, we’re doing well with our business, with the space that we do have.
[00:16:40] Kim Smith: Lots of people are investing in businesses that already exist, and we’re trying to make it as easy as possible. When people come, if people come to the city and they, we have a city planner that they can talk to, to go over their plan, that can help guide them through the process of what else they would need in order to put something in a particular location or build on a vacant lot, we can always guide people through that process.
[00:17:06] Vicki Markussen: Yes. And you’re actually known for doing that very well. So I’ll say that for so that people know. It’s just how do you, people walk in and you have the reputation of how do we help? Mm-hmm.
[00:17:17] Kim Smith: Well, thank you for that. Yes. We really do want it to be that way. And even if we disagree, even if what you wanna do is outside of the rules that we have we can also guide you for what the process is to get the rule changed.
[00:17:31] Kim Smith: And so that’s why, sometimes a lot of people call me, they’re gonna call the mayor and tell me whatever it is. I try to have them, try to figure out when I talk to them like, Instead of just generally complaining about a whole list of things to try to be a little more specific.
[00:17:46] Kim Smith: Because if it’s something specific, maybe we can change it if it is that bad. But if it’s just a general gripe, I’m not probably gonna be able to fix that one. But
[00:17:55] Vicki Markussen: I think that, the Climate that you have created, not just you, your whole team, the whole city and all of the workers that, that attracts businesses.
[00:18:05] Vicki Markussen: And so I know you have some new businesses that are starting up. I think you had a
[00:18:11] Kim Smith: list of those. Yep. Yeah, we just have a, I just have a few here of the recent ones. Now, keep in mind if, and if there is a business existing that leaves or closes and another similar business comes in there, there likely isn’t any paperwork.
[00:18:26] Kim Smith: Needed on the city side. So it’s only when a different use or a new use comes that we get that paperwork across our desks. A couple of ’em that I know of coming up are Happy Plants is going in Cross Road Center. Bath and Body Works is going in the old Sketchers that’s between Kohl’s and Target.
[00:18:46] Kim Smith: And there is a metro infusion center going and crossing Meadows. Metro and TDS continue to install the fiber network into the right of ways, which there’s. People are mixed on what they think about that. I think, I’m hoping that, it gives our community members more diversity in the services that they have to choose from, and I’m optimistically hoping it will bring the cost of service down.
[00:19:13] Kim Smith: So that one I wanted to mention, and there was another one. Oh, people always ask about Camping World. Oh yes. So everything is approved from the side of the kit. On the city side, camping world is good to go. So whatever they’re doing with their business is their business. It’s nothing to do with the city.
[00:19:33] Kim Smith: And I feel like that’s one around social media as well, so I can debunk that rumor. Yes.
[00:19:39] Vicki Markussen: That however they choose to open is on them, but they’re paying their property taxes. Correct. So far anyway, yes. And you’ve also, as we were talking about the team, if you will, that you have at the city of Onalaska, you have some new team members coming in.
[00:19:53] Kim Smith: Yes. So many changes, but I feel like that’s, the trend we’re in the world nowadays. People are, there’s just a lot of changing I guess go chronologically. The quickest one coming up here is our municipal judge, Mark Huesman, has resigned to accept a position on the circuit co court.
[00:20:14] Kim Smith: He’s been an appointed by our governor to replace Todd Bjorke, who’s retired. Congratulations to Mark. He’s done a good job in our joint municipal court. We’ve appreciated his service. And he’ll definitely be missed. There’ll be then a general election. For our municipal court position in April, but that joint Municipal Court Commission will appoint someone to fill out his term.
[00:20:39] Kim Smith: Next up probably most people know our long-time firefighter assistant Fire chief, and then Fire Chief. Troy Gudie retired earlier this spring. After many years of service, he was actually our first full-time firefighter. And a good friend, it’s hard to have, it was hard to have him retire.
[00:20:56] Kim Smith: But then I was also happy because we all look forward to retiring. Some days. So it’s a good thing for
[00:21:01] Vicki Markussen: him. Hard on the city.
[00:21:03] Kim Smith: Yes. Right. Well, we have a good, our assistant chief Les Noran is a excellent assistant chief. He’s been serving as the chief for the interim. And then he’ll help us break in our new chief, his name is Peter Freddy.
[00:21:15] Kim Smith: He’s coming to us from Marshfield, where he’s serving as the chief, and his start date is August 28th. Great. And then last, but certainly not least we’re excited to welcome Rick Nemeyer as our new city administrator. His start date will be on September 11th. Rick is coming to us from Trempealeau County, where he is served several roles including corporate council.
[00:21:40] Kim Smith: Our interim city administrator has been our city attorney, Amanda Jackson. She’s done an excellent job. And she will help with our transition and welcome as Rick takes up the reins and she’ll go
[00:21:52] Vicki Markussen: back to city attorney, I assume. Yep.
[00:21:54] Kim Smith: She’ll re she’ll retain her. I mean, she’s been the city attorney also the whole time, so she’ll she’ll go back to her regular full-time job.
[00:22:02] Vicki Markussen: Fantastic. Did I miss anything
[00:22:04] Kim Smith: on all your points? I think that was all the people points. When we were talking about the logos I was gonna mention, people might see we have the Onalaska Shared Ride Taxi. We got so busy with all of these, all of this rebranding, and we were so impressed with how it all was turning out and we were feeling good about it.
[00:22:22] Kim Smith: And then we started looking at the shared ride taxis thinking we, we could do better. So we’ve come up with a little logo. We’ve never really had a name for the shared ride taxi, and so the kind of, the name of it is now gonna be Drift link. And they have a new logo that will be going on those vans starting any time now.
[00:22:40] Kim Smith: You should be able to see that. So when you see the Drift Link logo, know that that is the old Onalaska Home and West Salem Shared Ride, same system that we do in partnership with the Runnings. It’s very successful and well used in our community.
[00:22:54] Vicki Markussen: So one of my common closing questions that I didn’t forewarn you of is what makes you passionate about what you
[00:23:01] Kim Smith: do?
[00:23:02] Kim Smith: Well, I’ve always loved Onalaska, I’ve been, I’m a lifelong Onalaska resident. So that part of it is easy. I’m really tied to the community, but I got involved in local government, really when I was a, a young person at the start of my career. Working with the Park and Rec department for, as part of my job and when my job transferred to something else, I was asked to serve on the Park and Recreation board because of my vested interest in our parks.
[00:23:28] Kim Smith: So you’ll always find me, in, in my heart, in which we didn’t even talk about the Greenway plan and the properties that we’ve been able to add, the acreage, we’ve been able to add to that over the past. Over my term, something I’m very passionate about, but I just really believe that Onalaska is, the best community to live in.
[00:23:47] Kim Smith: And I wanna make sure it stays that way. And I think that how we keep it that way is by listening to people. We have so many people, the Rotary, all of these the Onalaska art keepers. The friends of the Onalaska Library, the people that are supporting the canine program, the Lions Club, I mean the list.
[00:24:06] Kim Smith: I hate to, I know I’m leaving out a lot of people, but there’s so many people that really care about the community and by listening to them and by partnering with them, like many of these projects that I talked about, we can do more if we work together. . And I feel like that is something that I am good at is bringing people together to work for a united cause.
[00:24:29] Kim Smith: And so that’s my passion place and I feel like I’m serving that well as mayor currently. Fantastic.
[00:24:34] Vicki Markussen: Yeah. You can’t beat volunteers. Right, right, right. That see a vision and they, it’s similar to being asked, can you please put in the latest fast food restaurant as the mayor? Right. And you go, if you can do it well, you have a group of volunteers that’s.
[00:24:47] Vicki Markussen: See, great vision for the city, and they’re making it happen, which is invaluable. So you have been listening to Kim Smith, the mayor of Onalaska. This is Biz Cast Greater La Crosse. We’ll catch you next week.